RIddell: “Malicious obedience”
Not Business As Usual
Some recent conversations with successful business folks revolved around the managerial requirement to be able to separate “problems” from “symptoms of problems.” The gist of these conversations, unfortunately, was that tremendous amounts of time, money, and effort are misguidedly devoted to addressing symptoms while the real root cause goes unaddressed. The medical example of treating the sniffles while ignoring the actual cold seems to be appropriate. But what also surfaced in these discussions is an issue that is both a problem and a symptom. This phenomenon is known as “malicious obedience.”
I first encountered this term a number of years ago while working on a management development project. Simply stated, “malicious obedience” is following the exact and specific directives of a policy or an individual manager while knowing full well that this narrow and strict interpretation will lead to a non-favorable outcome for the manager and the company. It is the “I just do as I’m told” syndrome behind which incompetent managers and employees sometimes seek to hide. When encountered, it is almost always practiced by more than one employee. At its worst, it is adopted by a group of managers or supervisors. It is dangerous, it is destructive, and it must be ferreted out!
First, let’s talk about this as a symptom. This passively destructive posture could be symptomatic of a historically autocratic management style that penalized initiative and rewarded compliance. This would indicate ineffective management. It could be symptomatic of management decisions/directives that are totally out of touch with the reality of the business. This would also indicate ineffective management. It could be indicative of a compensation program that looks only at the quantity of work with little regard to the quality of the work. This is poor management. It could be symptomatic of weak, ineffective leadership that is unwilling or unable to confront and deal with a problem employee. This is unacceptable management. Once you spend a fair amount of time writing down all the possible “could be caused by” symptoms, you’ll notice two very important facts. First, when it is present, “malicious obedience” is a pervasive atmosphere in an afflicted organization. Second, pure and simple, it exists only because weak, ineffective leadership allows it to exist. It is in this failed leadership that the problem resides.
If you detect an intense personal distaste for this condition, you would be dead square on target. Managers and employees, regardless of the size of the company, regardless of whether they “like” someone or not, regardless of what a previous manager did or did not do, all have an ethical responsibility. This responsibility is to simply put forth their best efforts in exchange for a paycheck. “Malicious obedience” is definitely not in the category of “best efforts.” It is nothing more than corporate deceit. It is the slow but steady theft of any semblance of job security, any semblance of corporate pride, and any opportunity for personal financial enrichment. It is a hidden cost that no company can bear; it is a hidden cancer that no leader can allow to exist.
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